Thursday, March 12, 2015

Sins of the Children: David Cronenberg and Bruce Wagner's Maps to the Stars

Julianne Moore in Maps to the Stars.

“Everything is research, in a sense,” says Robert Pattinson in David Cronenberg’s new inside-Hollywood movie, Maps to the Stars. Pattinson’s character, a struggling actor and aspiring screenwriter who supports himself by working as a limo driver, is the resident Tod Hackett figure in this Day of the Locust set-up: he doesn’t represent a central consciousness for the film, but he’s the only character in it who could pass for sane. He’s also the only character on view who seems to be essentially decent, up to the point when, in the name of “research,” he agrees to screw his client, a movie actress and sex symbol (Julianne Moore), in the back seat of the car while it’s parked outside a house where they can be seen by the young woman (Mia Wasikowska) he has been dating.

Maps to the Stars has been in the planning stages for so long that Bruce Wagner, who wrote the script, turned the material into a novel when it looked as if he and Cronenberg would never be able to make the movie. But whenever the scene was first written, with Pattinson in the role, it gets what dirty charge it has from the audience’s knowledge that Pattinson endured his own public humiliation a few years ago when his Twilight co-star and real-life girlfriend, Kristen Stewart, was reported to have had an affair with her director on Snow White and the Huntsman. When Billy Wilder made Sunset Boulevard sixty-five years ago, a Gothic horror satire about Hollywood, with a bitchy, acidic tone and in-jokes, he had the advantage of giving audiences a close-up look at an unfamiliar world. Today, with a twenty-four news cycle that devotes a disproportionate amount of its attention to show-business “news,” most of it shaped to make everyone feel like an insider, it’s like everyone is spending part of their day doing the research to appreciate a movie like this.

Wasikowska’s character, who arrives in town with scars on her face and long, stylish black gloves covering up more scars on her arms—she looks like Morticia Addams as a young woman—is the figure who links not only Moore’s actress and Pattinson’s earnest young man but a psychotically bratty, callous child star (Evan Bird) and his parents. (His mother, who functions as his agent, is played by Olivia Williams. His father, a pop psychologist, is played by John Cusack, who’s made up—one assumes—to look as if his face has been sanded down and pulled tight to the point of torture.) They’re all children, and all so nastily inbred that they feed off each other while inflicting cruelties on everyone who isn’t well above them in the social-professional pecking order. Moore’s character, whose career has cooled off, is hoping to make a comeback by landing a role in a remake of a movie that originally starred her own mother, an “iconic” film star who died young. To show her how she feels about that, Mom makes ghostly appearances before her, in the person of Sarah Gadon. (Rubbing salt in the wound, Mom’s ghost is half the age her daughter is now.) Wagner and Cronenberg double down on their point by also having the vicious child star also see ghostly visions, of a dead little girl he visited in the terminal ward for the sake of a photo op.

Mia Wasikowska in Maps to the Stars.

The film’s controlling metaphors are incest and self-immolation, which might have guaranteed an unpleasant movie, but should have also allowed for one with a more easily detectable pulse. Cronenberg and Wagner may have been so thrilled about sticking it to Hollywood that they somehow failed to notice how tired some of their shockers really are. There’s a scene in which a rich person shows what she thinks of the hired help by conducting a conversation while sitting on the toilet with the door open, and an especially drawn-out examples of the classic routine where someone celebrates over tragic news that somehow counts as good news for them. (This one begins with Julianne Moore, in her kitchen, doing her unconvincing best to be concerned for the injured party, and ends with her dancing barefoot on her patio, singing “Na na na na, hey hey, goodbye!”) In the second half of the movie, all the emotional violence in the air starts erupting into physical violence, and sure enough, someone gets beaten to death with an award trophy. The bludgeoning scene comes late, and is so gratuitously bloody that Cronenberg must mean for it to be cathartic. But the movie hasn’t built up enough in terms of emotional stakes for the viewer to need any catharsis; anyone who’s hung around to this point is just hoping to satisfy some mild curiosity about how the damn thing’s going to end. So the bucket-of-blood Guignol just looks tacky, in a movie that amounts to one long reach for the smelling salts in reaction to all these tacky people.

The idea that David Cronenberg and Bruce Wagner might make for a good collaborative team is an understandable mistake. Cronenberg, who first made his reputation as a sci-fi horror fantasist, has spent most of his time since 1988’s Dead Ringers trying to find material that makes it possible for him to establish a tone of skin-crawling dread without bringing in supernatural elements. (The ghosts here—one of whom has come back from the other side with the news that Hell is so bad because there aren’t any drugs there—may just be hallucinations tormenting stressed-out, doped-up people. But even if they’re real, they’re the least creepy folks onscreen.) And Wagner has been serving up nightmare visions of West Coast opulence since his first novel, Force Majeure, and his script for Paul Bartel’s 1989 comedy Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills.

That’s the problem: the movie feels jaded, even as it kids itself that the dummies buying movie tickets outside the Rodeo Drive area haven’t seen enough of this sort of thing to be jaded, too. Maps to the Stars is the first movie Cronenberg has shot in the United States, and you can’t tell: it looks and feels as chilly and sparsely populated as any “set in Los Angeles, shot in Vancouver” joint. Even if Wagner had come up with some fresher sick fantasies, maybe two guys this cerebral just shouldn’t work together, and they definitely shouldn’t be working together to rip the smiley-tan-face lid off the Dream Factory. Maps to the Stars is antiseptically ugly in a way that makes you appreciate the vulgar energy of Hollywood’s brand of ugliness. Its icy thinness tells you nothing about its subject, and everything about how its creators want to be seen as feeling about their subject.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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